NEW YORK — He has legalized same-sex marriage, signed some of the nation’s toughest gun-control laws and funded universal pre-kindergarten education. As Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo campaigns for reelection here, his record bears many hallmarks of a true progressive.
But his opponent in Tuesday’s Democratic primary questions whether Cuomo belongs in the Democratic Party at all. She says the governor is more attuned to the wants of his millionaire Wall Street and real-estate-tycoon campaign donors than to the problems of inequality.
“The more Democratic primary voters pay attention, the more they say, ‘Wait a minute, he doesn’t sound like a Democrat at all,’ ” Zephyr Teachout, a liberal law professor waging a long-shot campaign for governor, said in an interview. “His economic policies are indistinguishable from Ronald Reagan’s. He’s not a Democrat.”
Teachout is at the forefront of a loud — although not necessarily broad — insurrection on Cuomo’s left flank, complicating what had been a steady march toward reelection and threatening to tarnish the governor’s image as a potential presidential candidate.
Although he is a liberal on social issues, Cuomo has governed as a budget-balancing, business-friendly fiscal moderate — a triangulation strategy in the mold of his onetime boss, President Bill Clinton. He has been slow to recognize the simmering populist rage among Democrats here, which last year propelled Bill de Blasio to an upset win in this city’s mayoral race.
The backlash from a few labor unions and liberal activists, who have long-held grievances with Cuomo, has left him somewhat vulnerable, especially at a time when voters nationwide are restless and harbor deep disdain for politicians. A cloud of controversy also hovers over Cuomo amid a federal investigation of his office’s alleged meddling in the anti-corruption Moreland Commission.
Yet even Cuomo’s critics acknowledge that the governor, with his substantial war chest and institutional endorsements, is all but certain to win Tuesday’s primary. Cuomo’s overall favorability rating among Democrats was 78 percent in an Aug. 20 Quinnipiac University poll, while 85 percent of Democrats said they did not know enough about Teachout to form an opinion.
Many of the state’s biggest unions have thrown their weight behind Cuomo, as has the populist Working Families Party — although only reluctantly, after many of its members resisted backing him through weeks of negotiations this summer.
In an interview, Cuomo said he thinks Tuesday’s results will prove that he has deep support across the Democratic spectrum.
“You guys down in Washington, you’re starting to make it sound like you’re either-or — you’re a moderate Democrat or you’re a liberal Democrat,” Cuomo said. “I want to say, in a liberal state like New York, you can hold both. The best basketball player, you can go to your left and you can go to your right. The politician who can hold that broad a spectrum, that is a powerful political base.”
Asked about Teachout’s challenge, Cuomo said, “She has no institutional liberal support,” and he dismissed her suggestion that his economic record is Reagan-esque.
“Why did the Working Families Party, which is made up of the most liberal institutions in the United States of America — you go to their left, you fall off the planet — why did they endorse me if I’m such an economic conservative?” he said. “It’s just without basis.”
Some liberals are upset with Cuomo for cutting taxes and spending on social programs and for not taking a stance against hydraulic fracturing, a controversial method for retrieving natural gas. Cuomo funded statewide pre-K but without the accompanying tax increase on the wealthy that De Blasio had championed.
“He’s obsessed with the word ‘progressive,’ even though people in New York don’t see him as a progressive,” said Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education and a Teachout supporter.
In this heavily Democratic state, Cuomo is a strong favorite in November’s general election against Republican Rob Astorino, the Westchester County executive.
The big question for Cuomo is how badly bruised he becomes and whether his liberal detractors can drain some of his power inside the capitol in Albany as he enters his second term.
“New York Democrats generally like to kill each other,” said longtime strategist Hank Sheinkopf, a Cuomo ally and consultant to the state Democratic Party. “It’s about right and left within the Democratic Party, and it goes back to the days of Tammany Hall.”
New York’s uniquely complicated balloting system, which enfranchises multiple fringe parties, could artificially suppress Cuomo’s vote totals — especially if Democratic primary voters nominate liberal insurgent Tim Wu for lieutenant governor over Cuomo’s hand-picked running mate, former congresswoman Kathy Hochul, whose relatively conservative voting record has drawn fire from base Democrats.
Cuomo’s campaign has been on an urgent mission to shore up support for Hochul since the New York Times surprisingly endorsed Wu, giving the law professor credibility and a jolt of momentum. (In another blow to Cuomo, the newspaper did not endorse anyone in the governor’s race.)
Cuomo picked Hochul to bring gender, ideological and geographic diversity to his ticket. Hochul hails from Buffalo, in western New York, the only region of the state Cuomo lost in 2010. His father, former governor Mario Cuomo, also did not carry western New York. Cuomo’s aides and advisers said the governor is obsessed with winning there this time around.
Representing a Republican-leaning part of the state, Hochul has been a hard-liner on immigration and once opposed granting driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. As Hochul’s record has drawn sharp condemnation from the left, Hillary Rodham Clinton, a former senator from New York and a likely 2016 presidential candidate, leapt to her defense Friday in a robo-call to voters.
A former political operative, Cuomo is his own strategist and is known to micromanage his campaign. Leading up to the primary, he has employed what aides call a “Rose Garden strategy,” appearing invincible and ignoring Teachout, to deprive the little-known challenger of media oxygen.
Cuomo declined to debate Teachout, despite her repeated requests; he has granted few interviews and avoids talking about her publicly; and he didn’t personally assume campaign mode until Saturday, three days before the primary, when he marched in a parade. At that event, he awkwardly did not acknowledge Teachout; when she approached him and Hochul, the running mates turned their backs to her.
After Teachout entered the race this summer, Cuomo’s campaign went to court to contest her New York residency to knock her off the ballot. The effort was unsuccessful. Teachout said she thinks Cuomo’s legal challenge helped her by drawing attention to her campaign “and making him look scared.”
“He’s made some real junior-league mistakes,” she said. “His refusal to say my name or my running mate’s name — it looks childish.”
Even as Cuomo gives the appearance of staying above the political fray, his allies have been trying to quash any dissension and discredit Teachout. Asked about her comparison of Cuomo and Reagan, Sheinkopf quipped, “Zephyr should remain behind the walls of a university and not be on the streets with other people.”
In interviews last week, many New York Democratic insiders criticized Cuomo, saying he is misreading the temperature of today’s party and is an unappealing figure who lacks a human touch. But they spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to alienate the governor.
Wu attributed this to a “fear factor.”
“Andrew Cuomo has put people in a state of fear of retribution for speaking out against him,” he said. “The fear of the governor’s office reminds me of a different form of government. It doesn’t feel like a democracy.”
Mark Green, a Democrat and former New York City public advocate who unsuccessfully ran against Cuomo in 2006 for attorney general, was more open in his criticism.
“Even people who admire his undeniable political moxie and some of his landmark progressive laws are unhappy because he’s so aloof, standoffish, controlling, hair-splitting and game-playing,” said Green, who has endorsed Teachout. “This is not a personal view. This is a unanimous view.”
Sheinkopf fired back at Green: “He tries to be the great philosopher king when what he is is a jealous politician who lost to Andrew Cuomo.”
Cuomo’s allies said he would have had a primary challenge from the left no matter how he had governed. Clinton faced one in her 2000 and 2006 races, as did Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) in 2010.
“It’s like going through the winter,” said Matthew Hiltzik, a New York Democratic insider and Cuomo ally. “No matter how well insulated your house is, there will be a draft.”